Last of my cycle of Oscar movies for 2014 and in many ways it’s the smallest story. The benefit of allowing more movies to battle it out for Academy glory (which doesn’t quite outway the drawback of cluttering the field with irrelevant also-rans) is that movies which are smaller in scope get a chance to compete along with the weighty historical epics, gigantic triumph-over-adversity narratives and special effects fantasies.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s tightly-focused movie centres on Ron Woodroof, diagnosed in 1985, to his horror and disgust, with HIV and given 30 days to live. Although the clock doesn’t run out quite that quickly, his life is changed by the diagnosis, but even compared to the small stakes of Philomena, this tale feels tiny. Woodruff doesn’t change the world, the law, or even his mind except in very small degrees, but it’s a testament to the clarity and energy of the filmmaking and the commitment of the actors that it never feels small as it unfolds.

As Woodroof, McConaughey is revelatory. Painfully gaunt, his lean features framed by an absurd porn-star moustache, his anxious eyes darting from behind heavy lids, he seems poleaxed by the diagnosis, only to flare up into indignant rage and then nimbly transform into a charmy, swaggering with easy charisma. Equally well-judged in a showier role which could so easily have become a cartoon, is Jared Leto as transgender Raymond/Rayon, as Woodroof’s partner in crime. Distrustful of the AZT being pushed by Dr Dennis O’Hare (decent, but given little to do), the two AIDS patients set up a “buyers club”, $400 monthly membership of which includes free experimental HIV drugs smuggled in from Mexico, Japan or wherever Woodroof can procure them.

Pitched between O’Hare’s drug company party line and McConnaghey’s maverick free-marketeering is Jennifer Garner whose Dr Saks is eventually so supportive of McConnaghey’s efforts that it costs her her job. Hers is probably the least satisfactory character, although Garner is as luminous as ever, as the screenplay can’t spare the time to create any kind of real emotional life for her and so she just watches from the sidelines as the movie unfolds around her.

The real triumph of the film is the way director Vallee marshalls the meagre resources at his disposal. With a drastically truncated 25 day shoot, he cuts nimbly, propels the story not just efficiently but effervescently, the drive of the storytelling preventing the grimness of the subject matter from overwhelming the piece. Unable to mount complicated set-ups, he uses the loose hand-held style to his advantage, and in particular uses sound design absolutely brilliantly to make his audience at one with Woodruff’s symptoms and emotional state.

Only in the last 10 or so minutes does it stumble at all, with a court case introduced too late in the day to seem truly relevant or interesting, and lacking the presence of the delightful Leto, but this is a minor quibble in a compelling and charismatic movie that does prove that McConnaghey is more than shirtless rom-com fodder, but does much else besides.

So, with the awards themselves just hours away I am revising my predictions slightly. McConnaghey I think may have the edge over Ejiofor for Best Actor, but it will be a close race. In the screenplay stakes, Her also seems to be gaining ground over American Hustle which might walk away gonglessly despite its wealth of nominations. Other than that, I think I’m on firm ground, but as so many of my picks are the bookies’ favourites, even an accumulator can’t win me any real cash, so I’m still holding out the faintest of hopes that Gravity will walk away with Best Picture, netting me £120 for a ten quid stake.

Overall, though, my favourite of this year’s nine isn’t as groundbreaking as Alfonso Cuaron’s film, nor as moving as 12 Years, nor even as charming as Philomena, but it was the most purely entertaining of the set and included a career-defining performance as well as any number of stunning sequences – it’s Martin Scorse’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a very fine film in what’s been a pretty strong year, Llewyn Davis aside.

Oscars 2014 - Her
Oscars 2014 wrap-up